How Connection Helps Picky Eaters

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Do you have a child who has some irrational eating preferences? For example they eat certain foods at nursery but not at home, or there are foods they used to love that they now claim they don’t like? I know this situation well! Some of my daughter’s preferences have been that she eats cashews at her best friend’s house, but only almonds at home (even though she used to like all nuts apart from hazlenuts). Or that she will eat chips but not potatoes, (!?) or that she will eat spaghetti with sauce if she’s at a restaurant, but at home the sauce is ‘yucky’ and she wants it plain, (even though she used to like it!).

If this sounds like your child, then you may have given up hope that there’s anything you can do. I know I’ve gone through phases like this. You may have put it down to just ‘toddler irrationality’ and hope they grow out of it. You just want to make sure your child has some calories in them, and you just want to relax and eat your own dinner.

However there is a solution! Chances are if your child is acting irrationally in their food choices, the problem is not really about the food but with their feelings about the food.

Hand in Hand Parenting is based on the understanding that when children feel good, their thinking brain works well, and they can make rational choices, and co-operate from us, even from a very young age. However when children experience stress and upset the feelings get in the way of their behaviour. They start telling us that they aren’t feeling good by acting in ‘off-track’ ways.

When your child is acting picky about food, it’s hard to tell what to do. We may not want  to force them to eat anything they don’t like, but we also want to make sure they are getting enough vitamins. And also just as important is that if your child’s pickiness is a sign that they aren’t feeling good, so we want to address those feelings, so they don’t get in the way of them enjoying life, and all the wonderful opportunities out there!

If your child is acting afraid of food, it’s often a pretext for deeper fears from difficult experiences your child has had. As Patty Wipfler and Tosha Schore describe it in their book Listen: Five Simple Tools To Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges, ‘those feelings are stored away, raw and powerful still, in the child’s emotional memory. There they sit uneasily, tangled with information about the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of the experience.’

So when a child gets picky with food, it’s often that they are projecting their fears and upsets, onto the smells and tastes. It’s hard to be adventurous with new foods when our children are still re-experiencing fear from the past.

I have gone through periods where I have let my daughter’s picky eating slide. I was learning and observing to try and figure out the best approach. I noticed that she was highly sensitive to smells and tastes. As she got older she would sometimes complain about the smell of my food and not want to sit near me! However I began to notice that when she was feeling good she didn’t get so irritated by unusual smells and tastes. So it really wasn’t actually about the food.

Here’s how connection can help. When a child connects with us, they get to feel safe, and they also get to be listened to. One strategy we’ve tried is doing special time before dinner. (You can find out more about Special Time here) My daughter carries that sense of happiness and connection to the dinner table, and then when she sees the food there she sees it through a lens of connection and joy rather than fear.

Another strategy is play and laughter. Children (and adults!) naturally like to giggle away our fears, and  and we can bring play to the dinner table with fun and powerful results. (see my article 20 Playful Ways To Help Picky Eaters, for some inspiration).

We can also set limits about food, and listen to the feelings. It’s not about forcing our child to eat something they don’t like. But proposing they try it, and then listening to the upset. (You can read more about this approach which Hand in Hand Parenting calls Staylistening, here).

A few years ago, I wanted to help my daughter expand her pallete. So I decided we would try some new fruits. I told her my plan and we went to the shop and bought a mango and some kiwi. We laughed at these ‘funny fruits’ and took them home. The next day I proposed we tried them, and my daughter cried for a long time. In the end she did try them, and ended up eating two kiwis! After that she liked them and now mango is one of her favourite foods.

At that time we used to go to a music class for toddlers. All the children would play with musical instruments, and then put them back in a basket when it was time to finish. My daughter had always been shy to go up to the basket and didn’t like the rush of children all together. However the two days after I staylistened to her feelings about the new food, she happily rushed up and put her instrument back in the basket. It was amazing to see how listening to her fears about the food was not just about the food, but helping her with fears that were getting in the way of her living life to the full.

I know I go through phases where I just don’t have the energy to figure out how to work on this big emotional project for my daughter, and that’s where listening time helps (You can read more about listening time here). Because every family is different we need time and space to think through the emotional projects we want to help our children with and see how we want to tackle them. Having space to vent our worries, and also talk about how eating was for us as a child allows us to get our head clear to figure out an action plan for our family.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful, and I wish you many happy adventures at the dinner table!

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14 thoughts on “How Connection Helps Picky Eaters

  1. Yeah, I try not to take it personally when my son’s preferences change. Ony day lasagna was one of his top three foods, the next it wasn’t.
    I observed how my good mannered brother transformed into a short-order cook when one of his kids complained about the food. I pledged not to do this. Ever.
    So when Colin decides he didn’t like today’s meal, too bad. I expect him to try, and if he doesn’t like it, he is welcome to leave the table. No dinner, no cake, though.
    Of course I notice that sometimes stuff that happened on his way home from school is bothering him, and he says “I’m not hungry”. Once he’s told me what he is upset about he’ll usually eat. Except veggies. Because they suck ;-)))

  2. It’s so hard to work out what is going on under the surface when our kids are acting up in some way. The important thing is to make sure that we try to work out what it is. However, when it comes to food, my daughter has always hated potatoes (roast, mashed, boiled, even chips!). As she eats pretty much anything else, I’ve not pressed the issue #BrillBlogPosts

    1. that must be very reassuring that your daughter eats everything! I think it’s always important to respect our children’s genuine likes and dislikes 🙂

  3. What a great post, thanks for sharing. It’s often difficult when you’re trying to feed your two children and they are both demanding your attention to actually take stock and remember about their feelings. Next time my threenager is whining at mealtimes I will remember this post, take a deep breath and try to connect with him #brillblogposts

    1. Thanks for reading. I know it’s hard to maintain that connection when we have so much to balance. I don’t always manage it well but when we do I see how powerful it is 🙂

  4. Thankfully we don’t have a picky eater (knock wood) but on the other hand my son is obsessed with candy and dessert. He asks for it all day long! And he gets very upset when we don’t let him have it, especially at breakfast time.

  5. This is a great post and got me thinking about my grandson’s picky eating habits in a different way. Will have to try ‘connecting’ more before we eat. He’s a very sensitive soul so this could have something to do with it.
    Thanks for writing.
    #BrilliantBlogPosts

  6. This is really interesting and useful. We are still in the baby who eats anything & everything stage at the moment but I know I am on borrowed time!! It’s interesting that it can be so tied in with their emotions and bigger problems, I think I’d have just passed it off as a kid being fussy if I hadn’t read this. #ablogginggoodtime

    1. enjoy that stage! It could be that your baby grows up and eats everything. But if not it’s good to know that listening to feelings can help. The amount of times I tell my daughter, ”but you ate this when you were a younger.” We are now successfully adding back ‘old food’s’ bit by it. Who knows eventually perhaps we’ll get to some new foods too!

  7. We have a fussy and very slow eater. I will never force him to eat but I do worry about how much he eats and the quality of the food too. We do listen but perhaps I could make dinner time more fun! Food for thought certainly. Thank you for sharing your fab post with us #ablogginggoodtime 😀

  8. My sons tastes change all the time, it’s hard to keep up. Never thought about it linking up to other feelings but actually makes sense looking back. Great post. I’m bookmarking this so I can sit down and read the other posts you have linked to when I have more time x
    #Brillblogposts #ablogginggoodtime

  9. Teatimes have become really tricky again at our house over the last week or so and I do wonder if it’s all the fun of the summer hols catching up with us all etc. I do need to remember to be more lighthearted about food but I do find it is one one my ‘things’ – I think ever since the eldest had to go back into hospital as a baby due to feeding issues and we had to monitor his milk intake so closely it’s made me get hung about food so this is helpful. I must be patient about his desire for things to be separate etc… #ablogginggoodtime

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